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Davis Back in Picture When GOP Shifts Focus

Republicans took the governor's loss for granted from the get-go, giving him an opportunity to redefine what the recall means.

September 24, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

If Gray Davis remains governor two weeks from today, he may well have Republicans to thank.

Taking his ouster in the first part of the recall ballot for granted, the GOP and its leading candidates have put most of their time and virtually all of their resources into the fight to replace Davis. That, in turn, has given the embattled incumbent and his Democratic allies a priceless opportunity -- a chance to redefine the recall itself.

No longer a straight up-or-down vote on Davis and his perceived failings, the choice for many Californians has evolved into a more complex series of calculations involving fairness, ideology and the tug of partisan loyalties.

It helps, too, that many of his would-be successors -- on second, third or fourth glance -- seem less appealing than they once did.

As a result, even backers of the recall now concede that the embattled incumbent, once given up for dead, could prevail on Oct. 7.

"To a certain degree, we were victims of our own success," said David Gilliard, the political strategist for Rescue California, the group that raised the signatures to force the historic recall vote. "There was a huge amount of attention the week after it qualified and people just decided then and there Gray Davis was gone. They shifted their concentration and their focus to who was going to replace him, and it's been hard to get them to look back."

For all of that, Davis is still waging an uphill fight. Not a single poll has shown him beating the recall. To the contrary, even his strategists concede that, if the election were today, he would probably lose, most likely replaced by either Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger or fellow Democrat Cruz Bustamante.

Over the last few weeks, however, there has been an unmistakable shift in momentum away from the pro-recall side, coinciding with indications that both Schwarzenegger and Bustamante have stalled in the replacement race.

As a result, Republicans are suddenly scrambling to reinvigorate the recall effort. On Monday, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched a new TV spot criticizing Davis and reminding voters of black marks, such as the record state budget deficit, that have driven the governor's popularity to record lows.

Recall backers are convinced that contempt for Davis is so broad that a simple reminder will be enough to drive masses of Californians to the polls.

"Their strategy was to de-personalize the recall," said Don Sipple, the producer of Schwarzenegger's ad. "We're re-personalizing it."

Still, it is just one commercial out of many flooding the airwaves, most of them promoting individual candidates and their causes. On Tuesday, anti-recall forces launched their latest ad -- the fourth one -- warning of "political chaos" if Davis is ousted.

"With 135 candidates, whoever finishes first will have only a minority behind them -- as few as 15%," said the ad, echoing Davis' dark warnings on the campaign trail.

The limp to the finish line is a far cry from the vision that recall proponents had when the measure first qualified, scarcely two months ago. At that point, Gilliard was plotting a $14-million campaign, with expansive advertising and a full-throttle sales effort.

Now, after spending roughly $3 million to qualify petitions and force the recall, "we'll be lucky to have $500,000" down the stretch, Gilliard said, or just enough for "a very, very small mailing to a limited number of highly targeted recipients."

Even the self-described "godfather" of the recall seemed to lose interest once he quit the race to succeed Davis. Since providing $1.7 million to the signature-gathering effort, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) has limited his support for the recall to a few token appearances, including a stop Monday where he suggested that a "no" vote on the recall would be better than allowing Bustamante to be elected.

Issa hastily retreated from that remark Tuesday. "Recalling Gray Davis is the priority; it has to be the priority," he said.

In the absence of a strong pro-recall campaign, Davis and his supporters have eagerly filled the vacuum.

A parade of national Democrats has trooped through California, making the case that the recall is part of a larger Republican plot "to steal elections they can't win," as partisans repeat over and over. In their telling, the Oct. 7 election is just the latest in a string of indignities and electoral insults that started in Florida with the disputed 2000 presidential campaign. The approach has the benefit of moving the focus away from the unpopular Davis.

"When you have national Democrats coming out to make that case, it helps a lot," said Chris Lehane, a former aide to Vice President Al Gore who is now working for the no-on-recall effort.

Indeed, for all the dissatisfaction with the incumbent, California remains a solidly Democratic state. Appearances by the likes of Gore, former President Clinton and the party's leading White House contenders have served to rally the faithful to Davis' side, however grudgingly.

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